2014 columns, Pop Culture

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

by Julia Tulloh , June 2, 201415 Comments

Douglass books

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today.

As a result of its television adaptation, Game of Thrones has become so popular and so beloved that Martin is often hailed as some sort of progressive genre genius. Fans point to his complex female characters, unpredictable plot lines, racy sex scenes and provocative violence. The high fantasy genre has long suffered a lack of cultural cachet, but it’s undeniable that Martin has made it ‘cool’ again. For many readers who didn’t grow up reading epic fantasy trilogies, GoT is their first real contact with the genre aside from nerdish Dungeons & Dragons stereotypes.

But I lament the fact that Martin is sometimes spoken of as though he invented strong women characters or shocking storylines in a high fantasy context. These generalisations erase much of the excellent work of other fantasy novelists – particularly women writers. By high fantasy, I mean stories with medieval-style settings, battles, dragons, magic and monarchies. I want to briefly mention some women writers who were contemporaries of Martin. These fantasy sagas may be of interest to those who have been exposed to the genre thanks to GoT.

Sara Douglass published over twenty fantasy novels; she was also a medieval history academic, so her stories are littered with interesting details. Her first novel BattleAxe (1995) sold nearly one million copies in Australia alone, and its sequels, Enchanter and StarMan, were joint winners of the Aurealis Award for fantasy in 1996. These books are some of the finest high fantasy I’ve ever read, with lots of magic, comprehensive battle scenes, excruciating tension, and plot twists that still blow my mind even though I’ve read the books five times. Douglass’ writing style isn’t the sharpest in the genre, but her characters are both insanely loveable and infuriatingly complex, and the world she creates is intricate and highly believable. Even though the purported ‘hero’ of the texts, Axis, is male, the story really belongs to Faraday and Azhure, the two female protagonists, who save the day time and time again with their power and humility.

Kate Forsyth is known for her bestselling historical novels, including Bitter Greens (2012) and The Wild Girl (2014). Seventeen years ago, though, Forsyth published her debut novel Dragonclaw(1997), the first in a seven-book series called The Witches of Eilannen that concerned a group of witches fighting to reclaim their power and status in a magical, medieval-esque land. Quests, mysteries, spells, dragons, talking animals – this book has it all, and the protagonists are all women. At its heart, Dragonclaw is a coming-of-age story for protagonist Isabeau, and the rest of the series explores themes of oppression, resistance and power. Forsyth has won the Aurealis Award five times.

Robin Hobb could be included on this list solely on the basis of her prolificacy: she’s published fifteen novels, a number of short stories, and a further ten novels under the penname Megan Lindholm. Her prose is among the fantasy genre’s most richly textured and evocative; her linguistic precision is particularly astonishing considering the volume of work she’s produced. Her first series The Farseer Trilogy about a royal bastard who soon becomes a royal assassin, is my favourite of her works.

I haven’t yet mentioned the USA’s Maggie Furey, or Australia’s beloved Isobelle Carmody and the wonderful Margo Lanagan. There are many more who could be cited: female authors who have been writing complex, imaginative and challenging fantasy novels for many years. These women deserve to retain their place alongside George RR Martin as exemplars of the genre.

Julia Tulloh is a freelance writer in Melbourne. She’s working on PhD about Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. 

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  • Tehani

    Also Glenda Larke, Karen Miller, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Juliet Marillier, Trudi Canavan, Lian Hearn, Alison Goodman, Pamela Freeman, Jennifer Fallon, Jo Spurrier… And that’s just some of the Australian contingent! :)

    • Julia Tulloh

      Thanks Tehani! I wish I had a chance to go into more of them in detail. Melina Marchetta’s fantasy novels should also get a mention. I’m glad you listed Miller, too! We have such a rich heritage of women fantasy writers here in Oz… could have written ten columns about them.

  • Helen Scheuerer

    Fantastic article! I’ve become increasingly concerned about the lack of female writers on my list of favourite authors. Definitely going to give Robin Hobb a go! Kate Forsyth’s been on my TBR list for a long time as well! Thanks for highlighting these authors!

  • ChrisW

    Kate Elliott, Melanie Rawn, J V Jones and Jaqueline Carey should make any list of “High Fantasy” authors.

  • Bontrodemus

    The grand dames: Katherine Kerr, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, plus Mary Gentle, Anne Bishop, Jacqueline Carey, Melanie Rawn, Julie McKenna & Elizabeth Haydon!

  • Priya Chandra

    Some familiar names here but also some new ones. I have added those to Evernote for the next time I’m in the library or browsing Amazon. Thanks for expanding my literary horizons!


    Someone listed “grande dames” and omitted Le Guin? For shame! Along side the half dozen Earthsea books published across nearly 40 years, there’s also her Nebula winning new series, Annals of the Western Shore. A shoutout is also due to Bujold for the Chalion novels, which to my mind are among the very best in this genre

    • Thiago Luis

      I’m currently reading the second book of the Earthsea (The tombs of Atuan), and yes, Ursula K. Le Guin is great! However I think she is a better Sci Fi writer than Fantasy. Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness are among the best Sci Fi I ever read. But well, I may change my idea about her after finishing the Earthsea Saga! Hahaha

    • Tehani

      Maybe the goal was to list a few authors OTHER than the usual suspect(s)? Le Guin (and sometimes Bujold) are frequently noted on lists harbouring mostly men, so it’s great to see other fantastic authors highlighted for a change.

      • Thiago Luis

        Agree, although Le Guin is an excellent writer, I wouldn’t consider her stories ‘feminist’

  • George A. Christie

    CS Friedman and Glenda Larke top my list of female fantasy authors.

  • Author Aspiring

    Isobelle Carmody is easily one of my favorites.

  • Meagan Walker

    Also, Elizabeth Haydyn, Alison Baird and Naomi Novik. Love these ladies!

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